Chloe Dewe Mathews


When viewed from space, the Caspian has a distinct outline, like an upside down map of the British Isles, and roughly the same size. But the Caspian is no lake, nor is it an ordinary sea; surrounded by vast tracts of desert, hovering half way between Asia and Europe – though belonging to neither, the Caspian is a sea almost lost in the land. I set out to capture the spirit of the illusive region; picking out unusual, poetic and often humorous aspects of everyday lives.
Over the centuries, nearby Empires have come and gone, each leaving its mark: first the Ottomans, then Persians, Mongols and finally, the Russians.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1993, an oil boom brought fresh prosperity to the area. Ports such as Aktau sprang up on the coast of Kazakhstan, where in the cemetery migrant workers now construct elaborate tombs for a new oil-rich middle class.

Across the water in the semi-desert of Azerbaijan, in a sanatorium town called Naftalan, people bathe in unique, chocolate-brown oil, which is believed to have therapeutic properties. It was startling to see an industrial substance so associated with international politics, power and wealth, being used for health and relaxation.

While the economic relationships between Europe and Asia change and ecological conditions on our planet mutate, so do the fortunes sift of the disparate communities who live around this strange sea. Even today, the lives of these people are tied to the landscape as never before.




My work is a hunt for moments of potency; when the clutter of day-to-day existence falls away to reveal something uncomplicated, something essential.
After a degree in Fine Art at Oxford University, I worked in the feature film industry for four years. Although it was an exciting world to be part of, I found myself questioning its extravagance. I wanted to work on something quieter, more economical, where I had room for spontaneity and intimacy with my subject.

In 2010 I traveled overland from China to Britain, hitchhiking and camping, in an attempt to experience and capture the cultural shift that takes place as one moves from Asia to Europe. During that time I shot projects on the Uighur minority in Western China, the returning waters of the Aral Sea, and the Caspian.
My work has been published in the Sunday Times Magazine, the Independent, Foto8, Vision China and Dazed and Confused magazine, and exhibited in London, Birmingham, Buenos Aires and Berlin.


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Chloe Dewe Mathews


74 thoughts on “Chloe Dewe Mathews – Caspian”

  1. Michal Daniel

    Thanks Chloe! I learned a lot from your well considered and executed work. Best!

  2. Another westerner slagging of the east………. I guess seeing that the Europeans and Americans fucked up their landscape before anyone really cared about environmental issues globally their rape of the landscape is ok.The British Isles is a great example how to fuck up a landscape but that has a seal of approval as it was in the name of progress. Photograph your own fucked for us to see.

  3. How about a link to your site so we can see what you do Michal………….. you seem quite happy to grab other people’s images.

  4. Michal Daniel

    BTW, you REALLY disappointed me with this shallow statement of yours: “What have you got to show us ……… just a shallow inability to go beyond a first viewing”
    Always expected MUCH more from you, given your work, which I adore.
    Also, regarding your “you seem quite happy to grab other people’s images.” Grow a sense of humor. Thought you’d laugh at the fact I pulled that “fakya” of your site, to make a comment on your statement. Otherwise, I’m definitely NOT in the habit of grabbing other people’s stuff.

  5. Michal Daniel

    Well fuck me for not knowing what exactly you meant by it. Now you’re behaving like a total asshole!

  6. Michal Daniel

    Dad used to say, “An explained joke becomes a stupidity.”
    Now, can we get over you and your brilliance? You might not have noticed, but this essay is not about you and your criticism of me.

  7. So why did you start with the criticism of me?…… I criticised the essay and the content you criticised/crisscrossed me.
    I resubmit

    Another westerner slagging of the east………. I guess seeing that the Europeans and Americans fucked up their landscape before anyone really cared about environmental issues globally their rape of the landscape is ok.The British Isles is a great example how to fuck up a landscape but that has a seal of approval as it was in the name of progress. Photograph your own fucked for us to see.

  8. Michal Daniel

    “So why did you start with the criticism of me?”
    I didn’t criticize YOU! I commented on your STATEMENT! I said, “LOL, Imants. And I thought I was harsh with my criticisms. Yeah, we should all just stay home and let the grave diggers do their own photography.”
    I’m gonna leave out the rest, cause I don’t want to hurt your fragile feelings by posting your image, again.
    Yes, I do think it is IDIOTIC to expect everyone to stay at home and only make photos in their back yard. And regarding your “I guess seeing that the Europeans and Americans fucked up their landscape before anyone really cared about environmental issues globally their rape of the landscape is ok.”
    WTF? WHERE in the essay, or the artist’s statement does it say ANYTHING about that? YOU read your own politics into it – with which I largely agree, but NOWHERE does the Chloe even remotely indicate she supports the rape around the Caspian. The work simply points it out. Brilliantly, I might add.
    Sometimes you simply FLOOR me with your closed minded attitude.

  9. Michal Daniel

    P.S. I might be wrong here and Chloe may be a man. My bad, if I jumped to the wrong conclusion!

  10. The imagery and visuals are not sympathetic to the eastern block nations just as the faded tulips wasn’t and the others that precede it, they are dour in feel and content …nothing political in my statement. I stand by it and would love to see a positive and joyous essay about the regions.

  11. Michal Daniel

    Well then, if that is the way you feel about it and demand it should be, do your own joyous essay about that! Chloe and I clearly do not feel the same way. Nor should anyone demand we should.
    Bottom line, as I said right up front: I learned a lot from this well considered and executed work. Your mileage may differ.

  12. Just another bit of static in the daily stream of photographic noise. Like trying in vain to comprehend the little snippets of AM radio talk shows that fade in and out on a long trip at night, garbled every 50 miles as the signals lose their grip on the ionosphere and then disappear completely.

  13. Michal Daniel

    @ Imants
    “That’s the point they are negative and bias”
    To you. To me the essay does not seem like that, at all.
    “I would like to see something positive about those regions because there are a lot of positives out there.”
    I agree. Been there in person, seen many positives. So, as I already suggested: do your own glowing essay about that. Nobody stopping you!

    @ Jim
    Your posts like the above are just another bit of static in the daily stream of photographic noise. Like trying in vain to comprehend the little snippets of AM radio talk shows that fade in and out on a long trip at night, garbled every 50 miles as the signals lose their grip on the ionosphere and then disappear completely.

  14. Michal my times in those countries have been full of joy, sure a tinge of sadness at times and my relatives know how to laugh and have a good time………… no need for me to do an essay.

  15. Michal Daniel

    Imants, people laughed and had a good time even in Auschwitz, or so my uncle who survived it tells me. But right you are, perhaps there is was no need to do an essay about that, either. But, my uncle is not upset about critical essays that were made about that, like you seem to be about this one.

  16. I can’t see this essay right now as I’m on my mobile, quietly juggling between Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’ and the comments on this essay… The only point I can add to the various comments between Mical and Imants is I was very impressed by Imants link he left on Burn a couple of months a go on images of his latest trip (can’t remember the exact name of where) I found his images refreshingly free of the typical western way of patronizing the people of those regions. The images were fun, happy and full of utter respect for those living there…
    Instead of the usual trite tourist trying to be a photog and ”I’m out to save these people”, treating them as objects and an excuse in trying to make a cool essay just for my own sake and not really giving two shits about the people because I’ve got a flight ticket back home…

  17. LADIES!

    Your both pretty and special.

    The first 19 posts are nothing but Imants and Michal going at each other. How classy. Somehow I doubt that this is what David had in mind when he created BURN.

    It is one thing to disagree and discuss, but this is just petty and has no place under a person’s essay.

    I think everyone would appreciate staying on topic under an essay and banish the juvenile sniping to emails between yourselves.

    Christ! It is like fucking childcare here.

  18. Childish thinking. The idea that one must remain local and record locally what’s environmentally degrading or degraded. The notion that people believe past environmental destruction is viewed as OK or has some seal of approval is simply moronic. Learning from past foolishness is vital. We know today that what happens “here” affects what happens “there.” Everywhere is our backyard.

  19. @Pete Marovich
    Thanks for your thoughtful, reasoned, on topic post about the essay!

  20. Michal

    I was in the process of looking at the essay, reading the comments and thinking about it when I got distracted by the nonsense. Which you seem to be bent on continuing.


    It was distracting then also. Just finally had to say something.

    I have said it now I am done. I will leave it to David to wrangle his children.

    I will comment on the essay later.

  21. @Pete Marovich
    You may not have noticed, but Imants and I were in a heated discussion about the essay. Thus far, you have made two posts, neither of which has dealt with anything but as you call it: fucking childcare. Looking forward to your third post, which will hopefully contain something of actual, relevant substance!


    This is a brilliant, thoughtfully narrated, beautifully photographed soulful essay.


    It begins with space and the haunted corners loomed over by that which surely must disappear amid the outersized weight of land and blackblood of the earth: from the wearied human efforts to make sense and life of out of the building of small, human-want (a cafe to cool the wearied body) through the need to wrangle the earth for self (oil as nutrient and beautifying alchemy) to the licking gulp of water in as small, goat-belly bag of water….is that NOT just the kind of narrative force that a story, one hopes, brings force and truth to the absurd gropings of people (us too) and a land)….

    To begin: the pictures.

    I love that Chloe has been just as swallowed by the land in her frame as I am every time i return to russia or any of the former Soviet Republics. Anyone who has ever visited Russia understands that what drove the history, what defines the life and culture and soul and songs and stories there is the attempt to reconcile the ‘strength of the smallness of man with the extraordinary abundance and immensity of the land and resources there. Each time I leave moscow (hell even in Moscow), I feel tiny and squeezed by the weight of the land, the sky, the horizon: the woods, the trees, her seas and oceans…the defines and pushes all manner of man: farms and fields, homes and churches, faces and hunched over backs…its there too in the prose and poetry, inthe architecture and the beautifully mad way that absurdity defines everything about the life lived…and this is very true too in Azerbaijan and Khazhkstan….ever visit Bakul?….the sky and the stench of the oil and the light off the Caspian fitting the alleys into mysterious corners stuck between the rigs offshore and the mountains in the distance…..Almatay, Astana, Chimkent……the sky, the desert…those extraordinary Khazhkstan spiders that seem to be able to wrestle a camel to the ground, let alone a man…..

    It is all there in the frame here too….Chloe’s use of space is just beautiful and at times bewildering….it, to me, shows a photographer who swallowed the place beyond the strange and absurd….even in the interior portraits the people are walled against the pressure of all that open, singular surrounding, pressing them….the toes isolated amid the petrol-mud, the hunched over man, whose black body ment-bent toward a curve, as if Hercules carrying the earth on his back, or timbre from the gulag, the mountains of rig carving the boys into space, the sky over the dancing girls, the constructors, the lone table, like Jane Campion’s lone piano washed upon the shore, surrounded by winde and shifting men….the sky is everywhere here, and the whiteness of the desert that, in the Caspian area, defines the world as much as the abundant sea, and the oil….the pictures just absolutely capture the verite of these two places….

    and then there is the power of the juxtaposition in all the pictures…their absurdist nature, the collisions (pipe and table, soldier/table/sky-family/oil-skin/saw-sky) etc….but this is not absurdity for false irony, but absurdity for celebration, for that insane collision of man-made fostering some kind of sense against the bewildering immensity is exactly what life is….what is Plov if not the most insanely absurd dinner that I could eat every day for me entire life, just from it’s sheer size and magnificence… cannot leave this land without feeling that too…there is nothing small there but what men make and that rusts and scars and looks even more absurd against the size of nature and it’s power….

    the ONLY lament i have here is that i don’t see, so much, the modern life that really now defines both nations, especially Khazakhstan….as mentioned earlier, i have friends from both nations…my school at the moment is filled with more than 200 Khazhkstan teenagers…i weekly talk with 2 former students now studying in university here, and they represent much of the transformation of Khazhkstan…the movement and the wealth born of that oil….Azerbijian hasn’t faired as well…but i don’t think this is a story about modernity, so much as it is something else, more subjective, more personal for Chloe….

    I too have been obsessed with Russia (wife and son and family from there), have too worked on a long-term book project, have dreamed of photographing Khazhkstan…and for me, there is only one way to do this, just as I feel there is really only 1 way to photograph as an outsider and that is not, not journalism…that is not ‘truthful’ photography, that is only to attempt to show what Russia/Central Asia did to you….it must be that way, otherwise we become Oz’s… in Oz and Ozmandias….we must show what the place did to us, how it drove and pinned us, our our personal exploration of ourselves within that land…

    and Chloe’s essay achieves that…this is NOT really about Kazakhstan and Azerbijian per se, but about what those places impressed upon the head and heart and eye of Chloe…this is a deeply lyrical and personal vision, and absurdist’s sense of place…and all that magnificent size against the mad-ness of human, Sisyphus, rolling…..

    and lastly, again: just look at the sequence….compare the opening image to the final one….what begins with size and a silly attempt ends in the smallness, and fraility, of a man yearning for water…..that is narrative….

    congratulations Chloe (man or women), powerful work…


  23. p.s JOHN VINK: U HAVE TO LOVE THAT COW! :)))))…and all the other photographic allusions here: nachtwey, burtinsky, vink, maximishin, udontov, soth, power, mikhailov…etc…etc…..that is just another powerful dimension to chloe’s essay….

  24. Michal: surely, you must be familiar with John Vink cows?….they’re in nearly every essay he has ever done….have a look through the body of work John has made over his career…i always tease John that ‘his’ cows should be a book unto themselves….

  25. @bob black
    Guess I’ve missed out on that cow image by Joh Vink. Just cruised all his available work at Magnum. No cow that I could see. Saw a bull mating with a cow, and a number of water buffalos. Got a link?

  26. Bitter-sweet is what I get from looking at these images. Then I started reading the comments.
    While at first I saw imants point clearly I later changed my mind. Well… took me 4 viewings to begin seeing what Chloe calls humorous.
    It brings up questions I often ask myself… Is misery and conflict more “sexy” than joy and happiness?
    Or is it that we relate to it more easily because we don’t consider our “happy” moments as relevant?

    I get a sense of isolation from this essay with touches of hope here and there. But it’s a hope that is common to being human….but again it brings up more questions….I don’t know the economics of the place but as a producer of oil there is nothing that reflects that in the pictures. That was not a target of the essay but as I said it brings up questions and reminds me of the situation in Venezuela…. I can’t wrap around my head the fact that a country so rich in resources can be in the state that is in….as a dumpster in south America…. So rich but so poor.

    Back to the essay… I like what Chloe has accomplished with this essay. It’s 2 dimensional but I don’t think she was trying to go that deep.

  27. MICHAL:

    no worries….i have so many pictures in my skull, just like books….chloe’s pick is a real brother/cousin to many of John’s Cambodia cows….same beauty, same humor, same beautiful use of space and placement amid human detritus….


  28. Good photos, Chloe. Even when you get close, you seem to hold everything at a distance and so add a feeling of loneliness and isolation. You taught me things I never knew. I got a sense of another westerner, reaching out to learn from the east, to expand the view of her world and ours.

  29. As Bob mentionned, it’s a bit deja vu (which is how I read you, if I may, Bob) , in terms of styles, also in approaches to “ex-soviet republics”.

    I have no problem agreeing again, about this subject, with Imants here. How many more years of re-hashing the same stance, visually too, about these places, are there yet? It is as if the stance itself is supposed to tell us all there is to learn about these places and the people. The photos, I find very uneven in narrative quality (and some are fine, as they should after all), really not much we learn at all, unless we read Bob and decide that’s what the photos are about. But that’s not the idea, really. In photography, one should never put the cart before the…. Cow! ;-)

  30. @Herve
    “really not much we learn at all”
    We? Hmmm. I have a personal problem with that statement because it speaks about me, falsely. I’d have no problem with it, if you said, “really not much I learn at all.”

  31. Herve:

    just for the record, you misread me my friend ;))…(but that’s ok, my prose isn’t always straightforward)…

    i like this work alot, and while it does allude to many of wonderful picture takers, it is strong…and there isn’t one picture in the group i don’t like…it is, for me, more about the impression of the place and all the space upon Chloe…i liked it even more than Tulips, because while both deal with Central Asia in different ways with strong picture taking, I think the sequence here is much more lyrical and philosophical and less about the people than about the reaction to the land…

    but i was also a huge fan of chloe’s essay about the Orthodox at the Beach published at BURN some time ago…

    i really hope that people give this essay some time and not get turned off by the initial combative nature of the comments


  32. “i really hope that people give this essay some time and not get turned off by the initial combative nature of the comments”

    it always wise to look at the essay first and then at the comments, if at all at the comments.

  33. I feel sorry for Chloe when she checks the comments on his/her essay and reads the stupid and futile argument in the first page. A little bit of respect gentlemen.

    I liked this piece, although a visit to his/her site made me find a few more interesting essays.
    Well done and congratulations Chloe.

  34. First time in ages I’ve been moved to comment and that’s what we get for the first page? The first few about the work the rest pure bile!

    Chloe – I enjoyed this essay a lot but then I am a superficial westerner who knows nothing at all about the region , so having said that I’m with Bob re the Cow and ho you managed to fit so much in to some of these frames without sacrificing the sense of wide open space available to you.

  35. and ho you managed to fit so much…

    Geez Glenn, talk about bile or you’re awful familiar addressing her as “ho”. I guess our urban 20th century urban slang has become the norm all around the world. Ah well, what starts as bile, usually ends as farce…

    I like the photos except for the ones of people covered in oil. I think it’s a funny idea and I’m sure I’d have trouble letting go of it as well, but it’s too much hitting us viewers over the head to make sure we get it when the more subtle approach evinced in the rest of the photos works much better, imo.

  36. I commented in the first page and wrote nothing “bile” don’t know what you are talking about…maybe a second read will be good….

  37. looks like some aren’t getting mw’s joke, maybe it’s a language issue… I personally thought it was hilarious :)

  38. Despite all that I still wonder why this new breed of documentary photographers don’t extend the same sympathy to others as they do of their own kind……… yes it is bias reporting

  39. @ MW – typo , ho should read how!

    A great example of documentary photography has just been put up on FB by Charlie Cole , showing some new/old work done by the FSA – I’ve put the link up on Magnum Portrait.


    my original instincts when setting up Burn was that it would be free of the blog/comment aspect under the essays…then i was dissuaded by those who felt the interactive nature of the net made this important…most of the time the commenting does in fact work well and we tend to have a good exchange..however, occasionally things go awry…at these low points i again consider leaving finished essays free of comments..however, each photographer published here has a choice of comments or no comments..only two or three of the many dozens of essays published here have chosen no comments under their stories…and when the dust settles, all seems to end up just fine…and of course the obvious, one does not have to click comments in the first, the author can bow out, and the reader can take it or leave it as well…

  41. David, I think you do very well to resist the temptation to protect people from their freedoms — in this case, the freedom to comment and make an ass of ourselves or to voluntarily read the comments and get all hot and bothered about the words of others. I’ve seen a few cases where it had to be done, but the great majority of the time it’s best to err on the side of personal freedom and responsibility, imo.

    That said though, and not speaking as any kind of role model in these things, I thought the beginning of this thread was unfortunate.

  42. Nothing unfortunate I still stand by my comments that far too many photographers make a mockery of the ex eastern block and treat them like second class citizens. Your comment here is pretty lame.

  43. I find your insights on outsiders approach to the eastern block very interesting and certainly a valid topic for comment. It was the personal nature of the back and forth that was unfortunate, especially being that it was at the beginning of the thread. But I’m sure it wasn’t your fault, Imants. If it keeps going like that, pretty soon that other guy won’t be able to land at any airport. Ho you explain that kind of behavior.

  44. DAVID,

    the way it is handled with the comments is great. Would not change a thing. My View: The comments are 1) for the author, 2) a discussion. It is good to discuss, and I also learnt much from the comments of others on essays from others – my weakness, I comment too soft, too positive. The learning is better, if the comment is critic, but constructive. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Finally, it is .. family. :)

  45. IMANTS,

    Thought you mike like to take a look at this: Yelena Yemchuk’s photos of Kiev’s Gidropark.

    Quotes from the article:
    “ ‘…a lot of the work that has been coming out of the [old] Soviet bloc [which] has not necessarily been very optimistic. That is not to say that the pictures are not dark in a sense or don’t have dark humor to them, but I felt like the characters in the photographs were very strong and very real, and that was very important to me because I really love it there and I wanted to capture the beauty of it.’ ”

    “Though she didn’t intend it, Yemchuk feels her Gidropark work provides a counter-narrative to the primarily negative imagery depicting life in the old Soviet bloc.”


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